What are we talking about when we talk about white men?
We need to be undoing the ideologies that make whiteness and masculinity toxic for us all.
This article is part of a debate on Countering the Radical Right inviting people to answer the question: “should we be worried about white men?”
Of the 118 people who took up guns and went on shooting rampages in the United States between August 1982 and February 2020, 55% identified as white, and 97% as male. A new dataset compiled by the University of North Carolina in conjunction with the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right in August 2020 found that of 550 people charged with racially and ethnically motivated violent extremism in the United States between 2011 and 2020, 96% were white, and 80% male.
To put that in context, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 72% of Americans are white, and 49% are male, so these numbers are disproportionately higher than their section of the population. Clearly, there is some correlation between being a white male and the likelihood of perpetrating extremist violence. At least in the United States.
But does being born with male genitals and pale skin turn you into a violent radical? Not quite. Unlike in the late nineteenth century, you won’t find many scholars or law enforcement officials today who are willing to argue that genetics predisposes people to crime, and as Natalie James argued recently, we don’t need to define a new ‘suspect community’ the way we did with people from Northern Ireland in the 1970s or with Muslims in the 2000s. That just encourages fear and mistrust based on how people look; it doesn’t actually solve anything.
Of the 118 people who took up guns and went on shooting rampages in the United States between August 1982 and February 2020, 55% identified as white, and 97% as male
White men are more likely to engage in violent extremism because of how both whiteness and masculinity are expressed in twenty-first century America. You can find white men elsewhere too, but the vast majority of the research concerns the North American context. Both whiteness and masculinity are the results of historical processes that have imbued biological traits with cultural, social, and psychological meanings. Racism, the belief that races exist and that the colour of your skin reflects deeply-seated characteristics that make you similar to other people with the same pigmentation, developed in its modern form during the seventeenth century as slave traders and slave owners tried to justify their abuse of other human beings.
As Barbara Jeanne Fields argues, racism quickly became an ideology that structured basic human interactions and social structures. It is so deeply engrained in our everyday lives, Thomas C. Holt points out, that we ‘know’ instantly how to interpret certain racial markers just as Nazis knew what it meant when someone had a large nose and curly hair.
Whiteness, just like blackness, is encoded into the symbolic and interpretive systems we use to interpret our lives. And it too has a history. At various times in American history, the Irish, Poles, Italians, and other pale-skinned people were not seen as white, and were excluded from legal and social privileges only available to whites. They won the right to be considered white in the courts, drawing on the sorts of scientific and legal languages that white people found persuasive. Whiteness has given people the right to settle in certain neighbourhoods, to attend certain schools, to eat at particular restaurants, and to carry firearms in public without fear of arrest.
In the past, these privileges were written into law. Today they are reproduced through economic inequalities, segregated neighbourhoods, and personal prejudices. White privilege is so entrenched that even alerting people to the privileges their whiteness brings often evokes hostile reactions, shutting down discussion and preventing reconciliation. As proprietors of such a valuable commodity, whites sometimes feel threatened when their privilege is exposed or if they feel that their communities, which had been premised on the idea that all members benefited from whiteness, might be losing status because too many non-whites were moving into the neighbourhood.
Some – a tiny minority – respond with violence. The beliefs of the violent few, however, rely on a widespread and pervasive ideology of race that has saturated western ways of seeing the world for the past three hundred years.
Masculinity is intimately related to power – both power over women and power over other men
Masculinity, too, is a historical product of its time and place. As George Mosse has demonstrated, by the eighteenth century the medieval notion of aristocratic manliness grounded in chivalry and battlefield prowess had given way to powdered faces, elaborate wigs, and honour confirmed through individual duels. The rise of gymnastics and a fascination with classical nudes during the nineteenth century helped enshrine the healthy, muscular male body – as opposed to the ‘ugly, hunch-backed Jewish body’ or the ‘weak, effeminate homosexual body’ – as an ideal type.
Muscular masculinity gave birth to male-only activities such as body-building and scouting, and was politicised by Protestants, zionists, socialists, and fascists during the first half of the twentieth century. Despite an increasing acknowledgement that gender categories can be extremely fluid, the ideal of muscular masculinity as a measure of moral value has not disappeared. One of the reasons for its persistance, Raewyn Connell argues, is that masculinity is intimately related to power – both power over women and power over other men.
Boys learn what Connell calls ‘hegemonic masculinity’ in school playgrounds and through the ways that others react to them and their bodies. If they behave like a ‘real man’, society promises them, they will be powerful and successful. But like all expressions of gender, masculinity is situational, fluid, and often ambiguous. Just because a man exhibits all the traits of hegemonic masculinity does not mean that he will be more powerful than say, a ‘weak and ugly’ but very wealthy woman. Like whiteness, hegemonic masculinity is thus constantly anxious lest its dominance be questioned. And also like whiteness, it is not biology that matters for men, but how that biology is framed – or misframed – to produce a type of person who is obsessed with wielding power over others and who lashes out if they feel their power to be threatened.
When we talk about the problem of ‘white men’, what we are really talking about are problems with the way we understand what it means to be white and what it means to be a man. The statistics are clear: we do need to worry about ‘white men’, but that does not mean targeting people who are pale-skinned and biologically male. It means undoing the ideologies that make whiteness and masculinity toxic for us all.
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